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How To Look at Troubling Pictures

A comic book controversy reopens an ancient debate on graven images and moral responsibility

Liel Leibovitz
March 26, 2015
(DC Comics)

(DC Comics)

I don’t mean to alarm you, but I’m afraid I have a bit of upsetting news: The Joker is bad.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the shenanigans of the pale-faced menace, the Joker is a cheerfully psychotic serial killer who is the arch-enemy of one brooding caped crusader. He appeared in the very first issue of Batman, in 1940, and, on the comic book’s last page, was stabbed in the heart by Gotham’s nocturnal savior. If the Joker didn’t die, argued Batman co-creator Bill Finger, then the pointy-eared vigilante was hardly worthy of being called a superhero. His editor, Whitney Ellsworth, knew better, and instructed Finger to draw one more panel, making it clear that rumors of the Joker’s demise were premature. The very next issue, the Joker was back on the prowl. He’s been unstoppable ever since.

That is, until now: Last week, a battalion of Internet intermeddlers succeeded in doing what Batman never could and made the Joker go away. Responding to a cover of an upcoming issue of the Batman spinoff Batgirl, in which the Joker was shown holding the titular heroine captive, tracing a bloody and ghoulish grin on her terrified face with one hand and keeping his finger on the trigger of a gun with the other, the digital dervishes spun into action and demanded that the cover be changed. The image, they said, glamorized sexual violence against women. A hashtag was born—#changethecover—and its rumble was loud enough to reach the offices of DC Comics, the comic book’s publisher. After a few days of online outrage, DC announced that, at the request of the artist who had drawn it, it was pulling the controversial cover.

As if on cue, the cover’s detractors and defenders assumed their positions, with one side screaming about misogyny and the other hollering about censorship. Both are missing the point. The debate about the Batgirl cover is more profound than either side may realize, with roots firmly planted in ancient theology and implications thoroughly modern. At its core is a question that has bedeviled mankind for millennia—the problem of representation. It’s a complicated question, naturally, but Hegel, never one to find himself at a loss for words, summed it up nicely, claiming an artful dialectic between those who willfully represented the world around them and those who were forbidden from doing so.

“Everything genuine in spirit and nature alike is inherently concrete and, despite its universality, has nevertheless subjectivity and particularity in itself,” he writes. “Therefore the Jews and the Turks have not been able by art to represent their God, who does not even amount to such an abstraction of the Understanding, in the positive way that the Christians have. For in Christianity God is set forth in his truth, and therefore as thoroughly concrete in himself, as person, as subject, and more closely defined as spirit.” The prohibition on depicting their deity, Hegel bluntly argued, has made Jews and Muslims not just artistically but also morally impaired.

Incredibly, this worldview, far from exclusive to Hegel, was cited not only by those who viewed the Jews as inferior but also by many Jews themselves. As Kalman Bland, professor emeritus of religion at Duke University, argued in his book The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual, the former claimed that Jewish aniconism—the prohibition on portraying the holy—was proof of Judaism’s lack of spirit, while the latter, mostly secular Jews eager to assimilate, presented it as a virtue. “In a historical moment when art was understood to be the expression of national identity,” Bland writes, “it was reasonable to conclude that nonnational Judaism produced no visual art.” Both the gentiles who wanted to rid Europe of the Jews and the Jews who struggled for acceptance as a religious minority the continent over agreed on one thing: Judaism was, at its core, somehow opposed to art.

Which, as we now know, is a silly proposition. Analyzing the famed fifth-century synagogue unearthed in the Galilee town of Tzipori, or Sepphoris, professor Bianca Kühnel, of the Hebrew University’s Department of the History of Art, has argued that the richness of the synagogue’s mosaic—complete with personifications of the months of the year, a handful of angels, scenes of ritual sacrifice, and depictions of the Temple in Jerusalem—is proof that its creators were not iconoclasts. Instead, she argued, they looked at art through a Jewish perspective. “Constrained from the beginning by the Second Commandment,” Kühnel writes, “Jewish art never initiated a preoccupation with the relationship between the work of art and its subject, but solely between the work of art and its viewer.” With no God in human form, Judaism hardly had to bother with theories supporting or negating figural representation. Islam took a very similar stance, a fact too easily obscured by the murderous ululations of the barbarians killing in its name and blaming it on YouTube videos or cartoons.

Now that the age of the emoji is upon us, with Instagram and Snapchat and Pinterest inflating our optic nerves and turning us from beings who communicate primarily through words to creatures who think and feel in pictures, it may be time to once again recall these ancient distinctions. We still have Hegelians who think, vulgarly, that the act of figural representation is, in of itself, a sign of innate sophistication. They were the ones who cheered on the Batgirl cover for no reason other than seeing its very existence as proof of some supposed innate tolerance or noble inclinations. And we still have iconoclasts who measure art primarily by its capacity to offend and for whom abstractions are the only form pure enough for contemplation. Show them the young Batgirl in distress and they’ll shout idolatry.

Both sides, sadly, are obsessed with the relationship between the work of art and its subject. Neither is focused on the relationship between the work of art and its viewer. In a world so prominently governed by visuals, this too often means glaring at modern comic book covers or ancient statues or stupid comedies and assigning to them the sort of potency that is only possible if we believe that our own virtues emanate from our ability to depict the world around us in all of its intricate particularity. Instead, we should learn that neat trick from the Jews of Tzipori and make striking images while still remembering that we are the ones who define them rather than the other way around. The pictures we make and love and look at should not be burdened with the expectation that they reflect back to us a perfect world. The responsibility for making the world more perfect is ours, and we can begin on this onerous task by honoring the spirit of the Second Commandment and understanding that the good and the Divine can never be reached by way of external representation but only through reflection, contemplation, and action. Otherwise, the only thing we would ever successfully be able to change is a comic book cover.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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